Fight for Identity Redefining Kashmir’s Widowed Women

Representational Photo

How educated, single-parents are fighting victimhood with their get-up-and-go grit.

By Muntaha Mehraj Hafiz

SHE buoyantly opened her cupboard and took out her wedding album with a palpable pining. Dusting it with her faded and oiled dupatta, she stopped at a glowing face of her husband wearing wedding gear.

The betrothal looked beautiful, as many jaws had dropped at the sight of a “match made in heaven”.

“But who knew the same charming man would be struggling for his life two years later,” laments Shazia, caressing her beaming bridegroom’s photo with a palpable longing. “They tell me it was an evil eye that consumed him, but I tell them I was meant to be a widowed woman. And it’s ok!”

In a place like Kashmir where widowed women are known for leading a hopeless life, the story of Shazia is spirited as she refuses to embrace the victimhood. While many in her tragedy-torn tribe face the social indifference and apathy, she’s fighting for her rights.

“It’s not about me alone,” she says, flipping the photo pages with a sense of wistfulness, “it’s about my daughter. If I can’t fight for her, then there’s no point of my life.”

As a prevailing practice of sorts, a married woman is send back to her parent’s home in Kashmir after the death of her husband. Some of them are forced to leave their in-law’s place some decades after their wedding. Even their children—otherwise raised with love and affection—become bargaining chips in this crisis point. The young ones mostly end up at their maternals.

But when Shazia’s husband died due to cancer, she fought for her rights and refused to leave. “I had to challenge the insensitivity of the society,” she tells me, looking directly into my eyes. “I had left everything after I got married. And now, when he was not there anyone, didn’t I and my daughter deserve his share of property?”

Shazia’s fight is unique in a place where human bonds are being celebrated for their compassion and community-welfare spirit. But the marital mess and “murders”, as increasingly being alleged now, are casting aspersions at the same time.

However, while the majority of women are still facing the set-societal conditions, many are feeling some change. “Daughters-in-law are mainly being sent to their parents’ home after the death of their husbands for a new beginning,” says Molvi Naseer Khan, a religious scholar from Kashmir.

“The aim is to continue the existential cycle. Birth and death is a twin-reality of life, and so are sudden shocks and separations. But yes, we need to handle such trauma cases with utmost sensitivity. I mean, I know for a fact, how many in-laws help their daughters-in-law to grow in life after these tragedies. They even bear the expanses of their remarriage. But just to streamline the marital chaos, we need to evolve a clear system.”

While the consensus remains that Kashmir should proactively attend and address marital discords and save the sanctified institution from distress and divorce, the fight of widowed women has gone beyond their rights.

It’s more about identity now.

When Beenish’s husband died in a freak road accident in 2011, the first thing this MBA-degree holder did was to resume her job hunt.

Her banker husband had earlier motivated her to be a “happy homemaker”. But when his untimely departure confined her to home with their two school-going children, she decided to seek employment.

“It was a tough call,” Beenish tells me, as we met in a city café. “My trauma was fresh and then these societal norms you face only escalate your situation. But then, I had to take care of my kids.”

While she was sending her resume to different corporate offices, her parents and siblings wouldn’t leave a chance to give her long speeches on the importance of remarriage.

Among other things, she was told that it’s very hard for a young widowed woman to survive alone in the hostile world. “I took those comments on heart,” says Beenish, hiding her teary-eyes from me. “It felt as if I had become some baggage with no voice and will of my own. Everybody was taking calls and decisions on my life except me.”

Beenish refused those proposals as she wanted to become a responsible mother. Besides, she says, she wanted to keep her husband’s memory alive. “I was told to accept the reality and move on, but I was already moving on with my new identity.”

Her months-long search ended when an American company hired her as their remote HR manager. The job self-sustained her and sparked a new confidence. “I then sold my wedding jewelry to buy me and my sons a new home,” Beenish says. “I’m raising my boys in a very cordial atmosphere. Even my parents and siblings have stopped interfering in my life now. This fight for identity gives me a lot of assuring feeling now.”

But despite such heartwarming stories of resilience, the valley still awaits a bigger welfare plan for the widowed women. Barring some paltry social welfare schemes and community help, the larger change is yet to come.

To understand this human problem, I met Salika Hameed, a young women-welfare campaigner in Srinagar.

Even before talking about the issue, Salika’s phone rang up. She excused herself and attended the call. Throughout that five-minute-long conversation, she sounded empathetic.

“Sorry, it was a call from a lady from Srinagar outskirts,” she told me. “The poor soul has run out of ration and needs her daughter’s school fees and some home expanses immediately.”

Salika runs a boutique which gives livelihood to around 12 widows. “The woman who was just calling me also works there,” the young welfare worker said. “She wasn’t seeking any freebies, but advance payment for putting her home in order.”

In other words, Salika said, most of her widowed-women workers work and earn, rather than seeking societal support for sustenance. “These women hold their self-respect very high, and rightly so,” she said. “They work extra hours to sustain their families and are gritty enough to fight their victimhood.”

While many are working day jobs to sustain their families, the others like Shameema are only taking the single-parent to a different level.

In a chilly November day, this single-parent is stoking embers in a firepot. The Kanger smoke makes her cough and turns her eyes red. Her blackened hands and face reflects her daily grind.

Shameema lives in a single-room at Srinagar’s Noorbagh area. The signs of pathos are glaring from her neighbourhood full of dirt roads and rundown structures.

“Ten years back, I came here as a young bride,” says Shameema, a widowed-woman in her mid-thirties. “It was hard life from the word go. My husband mostly struggled for means and market.”

But despite hardship, she said, life was good. “And then one day I lost him to a heart-attack,” Shameema said with a frozen face. “It was a shattering loss because I had none except him.”

For a time being, some Samaritans sent her some support to run her family expanses, but it never helped in the long run. Eventually, Shameema decided to do odd jobs.

“From a beloved of my husband who wouldn’t let me work at home, I became a maid at people’s residences,” she says. “The change initially felt uneasy, as I wasn’t used to this life, but then it eventually made sense. Working gracefully for your family is far better than relying on people’s mercy. The work keeps your self-respect alive and morale high.”

Be it snow, shower or sun, Shameema leaves home early and works at three different households in the first shift. By noon, she returns and attends her home chores. “Life of a widowed woman is very hard in Kashmir,” she says. “You’ve to earn and survive in a society where there’s hardly any fall back system for us. But then, you can still live with grace by resorting to hard work. Tragedy can happen to anyone, but your response towards it determines your story.”

In a Kashmiri society where the strife situation has produced myriad half- and war-widows, the struggle and suffering remains unaddressed. Most of these women survive on social support. But their tragic life and end highlight their helplessness.

But now, many of these women are challenging the shackles of helplessness with their will. The growing awareness driven by the 4G-smartphone has also propelled this change.

“Most of these women now seek newer means to create their space in the society,” says Afshan Gul, a Srinagar-based women-welfare worker. “They’re looking for small opportunities to sustain their lives and are becoming more vocal about their rights.”

Being vocal about her rights is today defining a new change in Shazia’s life. She closes her wedding album and converses about the long life she has in front of her.

“We tend to dismiss young women as deviant if they become vocal about their rights,” says Shazia, with a gritty body language. “The norms set by elders need regular review. What was acceptable to my mother won’t be necessarily acceptable to me. Not everyone can accept the torment for the heck of it. Somebody has to take stand against the social injustices and end this life of victimhood. I could do that and found a larger community support, especially from the young and educated people around me. But we need to do a lot for driving out the darkness haunting many lives around us. We’ve to create a thriving space for women without subjecting them to some absurd traditional mindset and method.”

With these resounding words, she closed her wedding photo-album and stood up to attend her daughter.

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